From privilege to poverty Experiencing white poverty in South Africa and examining ‘reverse discrimination’ in the labour market
I am Dafydd Russell-Jones, a 23 year old Masters student from Wales. Having experienced life in Masiphumelele and Red hill townships in Capetown when volunteering for African Impact in 2009, I am returning to South Africa to explore the experiences of poverty among white communities living in informal settlements in and around Pretoria. This research will explore the lived realities of white South Africans who have experienced a great shift in social and economic security since the end of apartheid. It will specifically look at the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation, questioning to what extent it can be considered ‘’reverse discrimination’’ and what impact this is having on multiracial relationships.
South Africa’s new democracy has been able to redistribute social and economic resources that were previously only accessible to privileged white people such as jobs, housing, healthcare and access to education to the extent that Afrikaners are currently no longer unilaterally privileged to the same degree that they once were. Indeed, there is an increase in the number of white people living in informal settlements in South Africa according to various reports (BBC 2012, Helpende Hand 2012) and it has been reported that these people are living in remarkably insecure conditions.
The development of ‘Poor whites’ or a ‘white under-class’ is a new social phenomena not only in South African history but for the African continent as a whole. White people have throughout history been economically dominant in Africa and have exploited its labour markets through colonisation. Although White people can still be seen to enjoy great privileges and dominance over large sectors of the economy today, this is not true for all white South Africans as there are those who have been unable to find a secure source of income and have effectively slipped into deprivation.
The ANC (African National Congress) has been blamed for this development of white unemployment and deprivation according to some in society who see that there is now ‘reverse discrimination’ happening in South Africa, where the black majority government is contradicting the ‘rainbow nation’ ideology by not providing equal rights and opportunities for white people in society. This research will examine this notion of ‘reverse discrimination’ in the South African labour market by looking at the qualifications and employment history of white South Africans living in informal settlements to view their eligibility for the jobs they are applying for. Local employers, employees and other South Africans living in communities where this is high unemployment will also be considered in order to gauge a feeling of accessibility to employment. Whilst this research will also explore how the development of white poverty has impacted multiracial relationships on a daily basis and in what ways it has influenced the imaginations of young South Africans for the future.
Blog: Sonskyn Hoekie
Posted on April 16, 2014
After spending 10 nights in Westfort squatter camp, I asked NGO charity organisation, Doulos, if they could take me to an informal settlement where only white people were living. Sonskyn Hoekie Sorgsentrum (Sunshine corner care centre) is the settlement they thought best for me to visit. Sonskyn hoekie is an old farm plot located in an isolated rural area in Pretoria north. The nearest shop was 20 minutes’ walk away down two long dusty tracks and you would not stumble across this settlement unless you were really looking for it.
As I was being driven to this settlement by one of Doulos’s volunteers, I enquired as to why I was being taken to this particular settlement, given that the charity operates in 80 informal settlements occupied by white people in and around the Pretoria area. I was informed that Sonkskyn Hoekie is typical of how informal white settlements operate in South Africa and it is also a indicative of the extreme living conditions white people are living in and on a large scale. This settlement, like many others in and around Pretoria, is located on a privately owned plot of land whereby the landowner charges rent for residents living on his land.
Sonskyn Hoekie was once a fully functioning farm and scrap yard, (this accounts for the persistent buzz of flies at ankle height) but in 1998, four white Afrikaners who were without jobs or homes were told they could build ‘’wendy’’ houses (sheds) and live on this plot of about 50 acres.
Over time, demand for shelter grew and the number of beds has increased to the point that this settlement has given shelter to around 160 people during winter months. Whilst I was there, it was summer time and so there were only around 40-50 people. Yet there were still two fully grown men forced to share a single wendy. Two single beds were squeezed in side by side with no room to spare except for a small bedside table where it was possible to prepare a cup of coffee, one at a time.
My immediate welcome was less than underwhelming. I was shown directly to my wendy and when I raised the glaringly obvious issue of the gaping holes in the roof, I was told that this was the best they could offer and that I could patch up the holes with some plastic, but this gesture never materialised. I was told to clean the wendy out because ‘the last people who were staying here were pigs’. Low and behold, nails, cigarette butts and other unflattering detritus lingered in the shack that was to be called home. I found out (four days later) that the lady who had lived in this particular wendy had to leave and stay at her sisters for four days to dry off because she had got completely soaked during a particularly wet week. I met her when she returned, she was a frail lady of about 60.
I asked the owner of Sonskyn Hoekie, ‘’Do many people die here?’’ He told me yes, four or five per year, particularly in the winter and they have to bury some people here if they have no family to pay for a funeral because the government will not come and collect the bodies. I was told of one old man of around 87 who had been left here by his brother because he could not afford to take him to a retirement home. Living in a leaky shed with no electricity in the middle of winter is certainly one way of cutting living costs right down.
I was not told the rules of this settlement upon entry but they became apparent as the week wore on. You can collect water from the communal outside tap once a day at 4 o’clock. Showers are cold and are only available on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as water supplies are limited. You can boil the kettle from the central outdoor electricity socket from 5 a.m – 5p.m. No alcohol is to be consumed on the premises (people do drink here but not together or in public spaces). Smoking dagga (marijuana) is tolerated for men because it ‘’helps them work’’ but it is discouraged for women and I would guess that at least 50% of adult residence partook in getting high at some point in the day. Porridge or pap (maize) is served twice a day every day (although there was only one meal on one of the days). At 10 am it is served with brown sugar, then at 5 p.m it is served with whatever gets donated to them. We were treated to one chicken wing each on monday, a portion of Kuddoo on tuesday, then it was bones and gravy the rest of the week – creating the impression that you were eating meat, when in reality you were just sucking bones.
The guideline for rent at this settlement is if you are earning over R60 per day (4 euro), you had to pay R20 rent a day for your bed and for the two meals you receive a day. There were a handful of men here who held manual labour jobs but there were an equal amount who were not employed but did various task in the community e.g. collect wood for the fire, make the fire, sweep public areas, slash grass surrounding settlement, maintain the dam. I did not see any of the females staying here leave during the day, they took it in turns to cook the pap, clean the pots, sew and watch tv.
Pensioners, such as John (pictured) have to pay R650 a month (out of R1100 monthly pension) meaning that some of them have to go out ‘biting’ or begging at the end of the month when money gets tight. Other than that, the owner did not seem too strict on who had to pay, it was more charitable. The line taken by management seems to be – here is a bed, you can sleep on it (but don’t expect it to be clean or dry). You can eat food, but you will eat what you are given and be grateful for it.
Invaluable safety net
Sonskyn Hoekie is the last post before living on the street. In this respect, settlements such as this are invaluable. It reduces the number of people sleeping on the streets and from my experience, the number of people sleeping under bridges and in shop doorways is unbelievably high in Pretoria. Initiatives and settlements such as this are essential safety nets for people who have lost everything and have nowhere and no one to turn too. They allow a life of survival that is very modest and largely undignified but at least they provide a secure base for human existence that is free from the judging eyes of society.
I was disappointed and saddened to hear that Sonskyn Hoekie care centre, as an NPO (Non-profit organisation), does not receive any funding from the government for the service they are providing. They do not meet the required criteria for financial aid because there are no black people living at this settlement. A black family had lived at the settlement a few years ago but they left and there are black families living in a field nearby who use the shop in the community (when they can avoid being bitten by the racist dogs) and I saw a black teenage boy playing with other white teenage boys on this plot but because they do not actually live within the confines of this settlement, the white occupants cannot receive government aid and have to suffer as a consequence of their skin colour. Hans, the owner exclaimed ‘’how can you make a black family stay in a settlement that is dominated by white people…. you cant!’’ People do not come and live here unless they really have to and this government legislature is increasing the isolation for these white people who have found themselves confined in wooden sheds with no exit strategy on the horizon.
I can understand why the government might not want to fund other similar white residencies in Pretoria, such as Philadelphia, that preach extremely racist ‘’daughters of Zion’’ ideologies to their residents every day, but this community is nothing of the sort. Christian Bible readings are read and songs are sung every morning at 6.30 A.M and church is held every Sunday. There is no such racial discrimination involved with this organisation, they don’t choose to only look after white people, white people choose them because they have no other option, black people do not choose to live here because they do not have to, simple as that.
Perhaps there is something cultural amongst white South Africans that has also contributed to their isolation. I would say that they choose to struggle away from other people due to something like shame. A resident of Sonskyn Hoekie who has a Nazi swastika tattooed on his arm but who had also lived in two black townships (being the only white guy and with a black wife) told me that he prefers living in black poverty than white poverty because black people come together and share in each other’s struggles whereas white people tend to distance themselves from each other and look after themselves.
This apparent lack of unity amongst white people in South Africa could also be due to the fact that they are not from a rooted or unified cultural background. Unlike black Africans who are united culturally as ‘Africans’ and who share a real sense of kinship. Afrikaaner, Boer, Dutch, English, German, French, Portuguese and other European cultures constitute white South Africans and so there is no real unified cultural history, other than a shared participation in an institutionally racist system that is now recognised as the epitome of injustice around the globe.
So what it is the future for white people in South Africa?
Not all white South Africans are worse off under ANC rule, there are still greatly privileged white middle and upper classes who would argue that they have had to work harder in recent years to sustain their position in society. It is the lesser educated white South Africans from less privileged backgrounds who are now poor and struggling to a greater extent and I would argue that this is a necessary development to level out the injustices of the past. What is not acceptable however is neglecting poor white people and leaving them to struggle in isolation from the rest of society, just because of the stigma attached to the history of white people in this nation. The sooner that the government can recognise that the face of poverty in South Africa is no longer just a black one but also a white one and that suffering is being experienced unilaterally throughout the country by real people with real needs, the sooner the country can try and re-address its image as the most racially discriminate nation in the world and fulfil its promise of being a true rainbow nation, inclusive for all.
Blog: Rainbow squat, where’s the golden pot?
Posted on March 11, 2014
After commuting in and out of Westfort for the past 6 weeks, I was presented an opportunity to live in one of the spare rooms with a member of the Democratic Alliance and so I have been living as he does for the past week. On the very first visit to Westfort, I spoke with a young Soweto man with two kids, and Indian family who lived next door to a Zimbabwean family, a Zulu man, who was neighbours with an Afrikaner lady and also a coloured family. I was told by one of my supervisors that I should not go looking for the ‘rainbow nation’ whilst in South Africa because I simply would not find it. It is clear that the rainbow exists right here, but the colours are not united in their freedom of choice, instead they are bound in their daily struggles and alas, there is not a pot of gold sight.
During my time, I have tried to speak with a diverse range of people as possible but have carried out the most in depth interviews with minority of Afrikaners (20) as they are the focus of this study. Regardless of cultural background, there are three clear insecurities that would dominate any humans daily psychological, emotional and operational capacities; no running water, no electricity and not knowing that you will still be sleeping under the same roof come tomorrow.
Among the Afrikaners in the community, two males were the gate keepers who used to guard the hospital village when it closed down in 1998. After squatters broke in 2001, these old Afrikaner security guards stayed in their homes at the front of the village and have made a new way of life for themselves. Using knowledge and skills from their farming heritages, they have created small farms in their yards to breed and sell chickens, ducks, dogs, parrots, racing pigeons, gold fish, roses, maize and the list goes on. From the outside of the yards you would judge the place to look like a mess with scraps of old cars, tyres, junk and apparent clutter. But on closer inspection you see ingenuity, craftsmanship and resourcefulness. They have learnt local African masonry skills to carve objects out of stone, making an indoor ‘squatter jacuzzi’ with water being heated by a man made furnace outside. The wife knits and sews pendants and flowers to sell at nearby markets on Saturdays. This showing that there are Afrikaners who have adapted to their new adverse opportunities in the formal labour market and are now participating in the informal economy, using local skills and available land to produce and trade goods and have built an alternative and sustainable way of life for themselves and their families.
However, enterprise such as this is by no means universal. Begging, receiving incapacity benefits and selling plastics and scrap metal are alternative means for survival and for these people, it is exactly that, surviving. There are people with jobs in Westfort who have chosen to live there because it is free and they can try to make profit from this location, albeit in exchange for sub-standard living conditions. For many others, it is there only option and the roof of their head is invaluable.
The variety of buildings these people now occupy once constituted a fully functioning independent village, including: four church halls (Dutch reformed 1896, Swiss mission of Vaud 1903, Anglican 1914, Roman catholic) doctor’s houses, nurse’s hostels, leper patient wards, native leper patient (Zulu) roundavels, operating theatres, jail house, village hall, post office, tennis courts, swimming pool – all now squatted on. Not that you could decipher the purpose of these buildings after inspecting their interior furniture. The first squatters here stripped the insides of the beautiful buildings in this mesmerising village for metals, pipes and electricity cables and sold them on. They even sold every bricks from one of the churches for 70c each. Not sure if it gets any more sacrilegious for a scavenger than picking a place of worship apart till it is no longer visible?
From the Afrikaners I have spoken to here, many seem to possess painful histories involving alcohol and the loss of family members and one suspect these memories have limited them in ways and scarred them emotionally. Sure, everyone knows pain during their life but life does not move on here. Broken and unfulfilled promises from ineffective government structures have meant that circumstances stay the same for people in Westfort. Bleak conditions are a constant reminder of their dark histories that stick like a broken record. Yes they have been given water tanks and toilets in recent years. But the water tanks they draw water from daily have not been cleaned out in 6 years, they only get refilled. The toilets get cleaned out, but only when they are full. There are between 40-50 people sharing single toilets. I have been keeping a list of people’s grievances and experiences here and these are amongst the most heinous and criminal causes of suffering and struggle. People should not have to live in fear of worms in the water they drink to survive. Nor should parents have to live in fear of their children falling to their death whilst performing their daily human duties in a pit/toilet.
Among the homeless Afrikaners I have engaged with at the coffee house (a soup kitchen I have been volunteering at that seeks to reintegrate homeless men back into society through upliftment and sharing the gospel – roughly 50-60 men each night), discontentment about the lack of employment opportunities is evident and grumbles of reverse discrimination are concealed behind hopeless expressions amidst a black African majority, who are also struggling to find work. Clean shaven, promptly dressed Afrikaner men who once had jobs created for them by the apartheid government in public sectors such as railways and post offices, are now unemployed because these industries have been privatised. Businesses that seek profit are now obliged to adhere to BEE (black economic empowerment) and AA (affirmative action) policies that seek to put black people and other previously discriminated peoples into employment. This makes it is increasingly difficult for unemployed Afrikaners to (re)enter the job market, especially those who have modest qualifications. ‘’During apartheid, we looked after our own, now that the blacks are in power, they are putting black people first’’ is a common frustration. There is no shock that black people are getting jobs over white South Africans, indeed it is agreed that it was probably inevitable in the new democracy, regardless of the flickering hope that Nelson Mandela provided in fighting for a colourless constitution. The discontent for some of the Afrikaners I have spoken to however is the reality of how severe the reverse treatment is for their people and the extent to which the impacts have been felt amongst the lower middle classes.
It is widely agreed by conservatives and liberals alike that the poverty of Afrikaners is not a new phenomenon, indeed there are now second and third generation Afrikaners who are living in poverty and so the issue cannot be confined to discussions of racial discrimination found in BEE/AA policies as they were only implemented in 1996. Social issues such as laziness, alcoholism and gambling are features not uncommon to unemployed and undereducated people anywhere in the world and in South Africa it is no different. Hope, education and prayer seem to be the only cure for people stuck in the worldwide human condition that is poverty. As I was reminded yesterday, the Bible tells us that the poor will always be with us. It is clear from asking the volunteers working with impoverished white people that they do not do their job to save a race or skin colour, they only seek to help poor people, who need help. And why should people with a shared history be judged for helping a person with the same history? Surely it is people who share the same language and culture that can help one another immediately by understanding each other’s backgrounds and needs? It is great to reach out and help groups of people who seem exotic somehow to ourselves, but if we do not help the people in the very communities and places where we live, who will?
Blog: Have I met you?
Posted on February 6, 2014
At first glance ‘poor whites’ or ‘armen blankes’ as they are known in Afrikaans, seems to be a tentative topic that rarely engages individuals in conversations of any depth or certainty. It seems to be met with intrigue and interest yet it squeezes through conversation like an elephant in a hallway, met with precaution and given the right of passage without much hesitation. This first experience may be because I am not totally confident in introducing this topic into conversations as indeed I don’t know it will be received. How can you open up this cultural insecurity loaded with racial history in front of a group of professional Afrikaners in their element – sitting around a ‘brie’ (giant barbeque), sizzling up a juicy steak (the size of your face), telling jokes in Afrikaans – without alienating yourself (an English speaker) from this quintessentially Afrikaans engagement and avoid ending up on the fire like another piece of meat? Or to a fellow passenger riding in the infamously tooting taxi buses – jam packed with at least 15 Africans (and me) with their babies, bags and anything else that fits, that you are studying the poverty of white people…. in South Africa? How can it be discussed in a way that avoids racial tensions that this country is so eager to rid themselves of? Is it possible to discuss this without patronising the struggles of thousands of South Africans, whose demands for opportunities, employment and security are surely no less? It is a difficult problem to address in fleeting conversations.
It is safe to say that a white person sticks out like a sore thumb (especially when sunburnt) in Pretoria city centre, as I was reminded rather blatantly by a young guy with dreads who jested at me “a white guy walking with a black guy!?….There’s no apartheid now!’’. White middle classes do frequent town but they are few and far between. This making the sight of a homeless white person more obvious and confrontational as they beg and sit in solidarity around South Africa’s capitol city. Black middle classes are surely flourishing in numbers and prosperity here and the black working classes – selling fresh peaches, plums, sunglasses, cold drinks, CD’s, hats, wigs, air time and my favourite – cool time (frozen juice) – know how to work the informal economy and sell what they can to get by. It appears that white individuals on the other hand do not know how to or will not involve themselves in this economy.
After mentioning to the professor of Anthropology at the University of Pretoria that I was still looking for a community to get involved with as part of this study into how ‘poor white’ Afrikaners are adapting to and supported in the new social, economic and geographical landscapes exposed to them since the end of apartheid, I was surprised and enlightened to be made aware that there is an ‘open community’ of over 1,000 squatters living in Pretoria West, that comprises of Afrikaaners, black Africans, Coloreds, Indians and migrants from Zimbabwe. More interesting still is that they are occupying an abandoned leprosy village that that was once designed to isolate and treat all people with leprosy in South Africa. The archaeology department at university of Pretoria carried out research on this location that established it as listed heritage site in South Africa. This prevented the village from being demolished and effectively saved the occupants from being evicted. To my awareness, no anthropological research has been done there and it seems that are fascinating stories, experiences and relationships that need to be exposed.
I have been warned that there is a lot suffering in this Westfort community. There is high unemployment, no electricity, no running water, ambulances can’t find the place because it is not a legal settlement but I have also been told that there are plenty of good people here that welcome people who want hear their stories. I am under no illusion that this will be easy but I am excited at the prospect of bringing about good change. Social researching in this place could provide unique humanitarian insights into the new relationships, cultural imaginations and living arrangements that exist in South Africa today, that you could say are precisely what the apartheid regime endeavoured to prevent. This will also provide an insight into the lived experiences and difficulties of employment opportunities surrounding ‘poor whites’ whilst also taking into account the struggles and hardships of South Africans from diverse cultural backgrounds who are living in the same community.
After receiving an offer to be taken to Westfort in two weeks by an associate of the university, I ended up having a more bizarre and unpredictable offer from an apparent stranger I walked past in the street. This unknown African man confronted me, ‘’do I know you?’’ I replied humorously, “I don’t think we have ever met before,” upon which he said, “You look familiar.” I definitely had not met him before, so I reassured him that I had just arrived in Pretoria two weeks ago and that I was looking to carry out a study on a community called Westfort in Pretoria west. He took off his backpack silently, opened up the zip and pulled out a flyer that read in bold letters, ‘THE WESTFORT OUTREACH PROGRAMME’. I laughed in amazement. He told me he was a pastor and that he was planning an outreach event there on Saturday. What else could I do but thank God for this appointment?